Twenty-seven years after a violent storm on Mt Ruapehu took the lives of six men on a five-day army training exercise the memories remain vivid for Geoff (Snow) Rameka.

Mr Rameka was one of a 13-strong army training group caught in a blizzard near the summit on August 13, 1990, without any form of communication.

The trainee instructor and another soldier embarked on a death defying 11-hour trek down the mountain at the height of the storm to raise the alarm.

Five of the group were rescued but five soldiers and a naval rating, aged 19 to 23, had died by the time rescuers got to them.

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The former army staff sergeant who lives and works in Taupo said he still felt nervous at this time of the year when memories of that trip on Mt Ruapehu resurfaced.

Mr Rameka said he had always had an enormous respect and love for the environment and the mountain which is part of his Ngati Tuwharetoa legacy. But after the tragedy it was a long time before he was able to return without breaking down.

Snow Rameka pictured in 1989 on a military training exercise on Mt Ruapehu - a year before the one that nearly took his life.
Snow Rameka pictured in 1989 on a military training exercise on Mt Ruapehu - a year before the one that nearly took his life.

"It was all about those boys who died, and although we got down the mountain I had a sense of guilt and failure at not being able to save their lives."

He said the group had been on the mountain for about three days and things had been going really well with good weather conditions when the blizzard hit without warning when they were near the summit.

"It was brilliant until the night of August 11 when the weather closed in. It hit really hard and was an horrific storm. It was whiteout, you could barely see beyond your nostrils and the wind was roaring like a jet engine."

They had built snow caves, but were on the most vulnerable part of the mountain at the base of the second-highest peak. After the first night of the storm, fears that the snow caves were going to buckle, burying them alive, led to a decision to try to get to Dome Shelter.

They were unable to make progress and turned to go back but couldn't locate the snow caves. Efforts to build a snow dome were thwarted by gale-force winds and left them exhausted.

They built snow trenches but hit an ice shelf and eventually managed to get some shelter by lining up packs at one end of the trench. Some members of the group were suffering hypothermia and were bundled up in sleeping bags which were staked to the ground with ice axes to stop them being blown away.

Mr Rameka said 24 hours later the storm showed no sign of abating and, with some of the younger members of the group deteriorating, he told the other instructor he was going for help.

"I felt I had an affinity with the mountain and if anyone could get down I could."

By then he had stripped out most of his own gear including a new $600 sleeping bag and knew the odds of surviving were long. He was down to his boots, long johns, a short sleeved top, one glove, a beanie and glasses when he set off.

Twenty seven years after a violent storm on Mt Ruapehu took the lives of six men on a five day army training exercise in 1990.
Twenty seven years after a violent storm on Mt Ruapehu took the lives of six men on a five day army training exercise in 1990.

He was extremely fit, used to running between Waiouru and Ohakune and further afield, and says a decision by army private Brendon Burchell to accompany him probably saved his life.

"If he hadn't been with me I probably would have been more reckless."

The pair ended up on the treacherous western side of the mountain because visibility was so bad.

At one point during the descent Mr Rameka went over a ledge the height of a power pole, damaging his lower back and breaking his coccyx.

Giving up was not an option.

"It was pure adrenalin and worrying about myself wasn't an issue because we just had to get help for the boys up there."

Mr Rameka said a prayer for help to Tuwharetoa ancestor Ngatoroirangi was answered in the form of an electrical storm that lit up the sky showing up the ridge lines, which was crucial to navigation. The pair broke out of the snowline around seven hours after setting out and hit the first stream.

"A stag on the other side looked directly at us and bolted. We crossed, and right where he had been standing, we came across a track marker and made it to a hut."

He said a couple of men in the hut gave them a torch and a bag of tomatoes and they headed out again.

"We ran across ridges for another three hours and finally saw the lights of a vehicle heading up what turned out to be the Bruce Road.

"We literally threw ourselves onto the road and it was the guy who drove the snow cat. He took us to the work shed and raised the alarm."

Mr Rameka recalled a doctor treating him and refusing to let him sleep.

"I kept nodding off and he prodded my chest and hit my arm and when I asked why, because it was so annoying and I was knackered, he said that he couldn't let me sleep because I might not wake up."

In the aftermath, the extent of his injuries and coming to grips with the deaths of six young men in the training group hit hard.

"For five years I couldn't sit down properly because of the smashed coccyx and couldn't go back into the field because of frost bite. I felt like my mind was broken and my body destroyed."

NEW GENERATION: Snow Rameka pictured with his youngest son Taakoha - a keen snowboarder - at the Haka Shop headquarters.
NEW GENERATION: Snow Rameka pictured with his youngest son Taakoha - a keen snowboarder - at the Haka Shop headquarters.

He was reluctant to give up his army career and in 1992 moved to Linton in Palmerston North with wife Dinny and their three young boys to take on a desk job as a recruiter. He also joined a kapa haka defence force group, travelling to perform in the United Kingdom on numerous occasions.

After completing 20 years army service he trained as a school teacher at the age of 41, returning to his hometown of Taupo 11 years ago with his family to take up a job as teacher at Taupo-nui-a Tia College teaching te reo, kapa haka, PE and social studies.

His wife of 38 years, Dinny, said the Mt Ruapehu tragedy marked a turning point in his life.

"Snow was as tough as leather and resilient - thought he was bullet proof. But he met his maker up there and found his true self and life really did take a turn for him."

Mr Rameka said time had eased the intense grief and emotion he used to experience whenever he returned to Mt Ruapehu. When he is in the area he usually takes time to visit a memorial plaque at Whakapapa to pay his respects.

His 11-year-old son, Taakoha, and his grandson, Manawa, also 11, are keen snowboarders and going up the mountain with them is creating new, happier memories.

"They're a new generation learning to respect the mountain because it will always be bigger than us, and going up with them has helped the healing process."